Operatic Notions, Out of the Mouths of Youths
A world premiere opera, “Nightingale & the Tower,” is being unveiled in Ojai’s Libbey Bowl this weekend, as an ambitious project featuring Ojai Youth Opera.
Ojai Youth Opera, “Nightingale & the Tower”
When: Saturday and Sunday, 8 to 9:30 p.m.
Where: Ojai Libbey Bowl, 210 Signal Street, Ojai
Cost: $39, VIP tickets $150 (benefitting Ojai Youth Opera)
Considering the special event unveiling at Ojai Libbey Bowl this weekend, two elements of surprise may trigger double takes. Firstly, there is the fact that an actual world premiere of a new opera, called “Nightingale & the Tower,” is taking place in this hallowed venue (also the site of the world-famous Ojai Music Festival, each June). Secondly, the central performing body is the Ojai Youth Opera, with help from a group of professional adult performers.
Welcome to the world of the Ojai Youth Opera, a brave endeavour undertaken by its co-founding director Rebecca Comerford. Ms. Comerford, an opera singer, teacher and facilitator who moved to Ojai from Brooklyn, was previously behind the Santa Barbara Youth Opera production of “Brundibár” in 2017. Here, she ups the ante by venturing into the realm of contemporary opera, birthed in the 805.
She concieved of and co-wrote the new opera, along with Mikael Jorgensen, a fellow Ojai resident whose primary gig is playing with the band Wilco, Jason Treuting, from prized new music group So Percussion (which performed at Campbell Hall recently) and his wife, Beth Meyers. “Nightingale & the Tower” is described as “an electronic chamber opera created for six professional adult singers, twenty-nine youth OYO members, ages 7-18, synthesizers, chamber orchestra, and earth harp.”
For this special occasion, Ms. Comerford enlisted some impressive vocal adult vocal talent, including Metropolitan Opera-linked contralto Nicole Mitchell and soprano Sequina DuBose, baritones Andrew Petracca and Joseph Flaxman, and, from in-house, OYO founders and sopranos Ms. Comerford and Julija Zonic.
In an interview last week, Ms. Comerford explained that the narrative idea for what became the opera had been “swimming around in my head for over a year. I had been thinking a lot about the co-dependent relationship technology has married into our daily lives and particularly, the lives of our children. As a mother of two kids under the age of ten, I was observing how the internet, social media and screens have become a constant omnipresent force in our society that dictates our ability to work, socialize, entertain, create, recreate and communicate.
“I wanted to explore this delicate balance of technology versus the natural world through storytelling and so I wrote the libretto and shared it with my friend and colleague Mikael. He in turn suggested that this was interesting material worthy of writing an opera about.”
Just add the musical collaboration with Mr. Treuting and Ms. Meyers, both of whom teach at Princeton, fast forward to this weekend, and voila, a new opera is being born.
Assembling what Ms. Comerford describes as multiple “moving parts” of the production involved working long distance with singers from NYC and Washington, D.C area. Only recently did all the pieces come together for a dress rehearsal at Libbey Bowl.
“It was so thrilling and gratifying to see our youth cast actually meet the adults who are playing their parents for the first time,” Ms. Comerford exclaimed. “And then there is the challenge of the technology itself. We have this giant Tower of LED screens that comprises our ‘Tower,’ and within this tower many electronic music cues as well as soundscapes and manipulations are taking place. Just crafting that in Mikael’s studio is one thing. Transporting the giant supercomputer to Libbey Bowl is a whole other adventure.”
News-Press: It sounds as if the opera, thematically, deals with the mix of mythology and the technological age/realities, as maybe reflected in the electro-digital-acoustic nature of the music itself. Is that about right?
Rebecca Comerford: Yes, we have composed a fairly traditional, neoclassical score full of arias, recitativo, etc. but then there is this whole other element of digital sound that sometimes gets layered into the score, with backing beats, and various electronic texturing that adds an elements of improvisation in moments, as well as an unconventional sonic landscape you wouldn’t necessarily associate with traditional opera.
NP: You have worked in conventional opera settings and also with youth, and now have the Ojai Youth Opera in motion. One might assume that adult and youth opera work is radically different, but is that the case? Do you find the young people you work with eager to take on challenges and embrace what you put before them?
RC: I am constantly amazed by the level of dedication and heart the young people bring to the craft. I think there is this deep intrinsic feeling they all get when they realize they are participating in something valuable, that also demands all of their attention and hard work.
Opera literally means “the work,” and I remind my students of that fact when they start to feel overwhelmed by the demands it places on them. But unlike like adults, they don’t always have the critical voice of experience weighing them down and so they are often more open to try new things, risk a bit more, leave more of themselves on the stage.
In a traditional Opera house, there is a hierarchy to the way things are done, that’s not so much the case with our kids. Kids don’t care about hierarchy. They don’t necessarily care if you’ve sung at the Met, or what your resume says or how pristine your technique is. They recognize mastery when they see it, but there’s not as much ego involved. Some of our kids don’t read music, and some are at a very high level of musicianship, so there’s that as well. Some scenes with younger singers require much more rote rehearsal, drilling and deep level of patience that you would not receive as an adult.
Much of it remains the same though. The care for the craft, the attention to the music, the recognition that when you’re part of an opera, it is always this giant collaborative undertaking. There is this acknowledgment that you are part of something much greater than yourself.
NP: Is part of your mission to evangelize about the power and excitement of the opera medium—to a young popular and mass media-influenced culture that isn’t necessarily open to opera?
Yes, that and to carry on a tradition of vocal pedagogy based in the Bel Canto technique that I think is beautiful and should not be lost.
NP: How do you bridge that communication gap with potential new opera audiences? Is contemporary opera a vibrant and growing thing at this point?
RC: It’s all a matter of exposure. For both children and adults, how are you supposed to identify with something you have never seen or experienced? Contemporary Opera has had a reputation of being too cerebral or esoteric, but I believe that is changing. America is fielding this new generation of composers that have really interesting things to say. The work feels more drama-driven (with work by) people like Matthew Aucoin, Missy Mazzoli, and Bryan Doerries, whose new piece, “Antigone in Ferguson” premieres this summer.
I think we as Americans are embracing the art form as our own form of Lyric Theatre in this really innovative, psychological way, where we are asking what our identity is, through the medium of the art form and truly taking it and making it our own, which is exciting.
People seem more aware of opera than they did when I first discovered it as a young adult in the 1990s. I am also excited to see that there is so much chamber Opera and new music being produced nowadays in unconventional settings outside of the traditional Opera house.
NP: The Ojai Music Festival is world-renowned, of course, and a haven for contemporary music. Apart from that once-a-year festival, do you find there to be a cultural curiosity and embrace in that community?
RC: Ojai has both this micro/macro identity that seems to birth innovative ideas. As a community it is extremely tight knit and insular, and yet, embraces a world view that is welcoming and attracts artists and innovators from all over.
I think people who choose to live and create in Ojai have specifically chosen to do so because it promotes a certain state of mind. You are able to think, to ruminate and to dream. There is a slower pace to life and so ideas percolate and spread. And yes, when you contemplate the idea of doing something unique, pioneering or unusual, the community is often there to support that idea coming to fruition.
When I first moved from Brooklyn to Ojai, I didn’t initially know if the community would even be interested in an Opera Theatre for youth. Would there even be enough kids to participate? What I have come to find is that there is such an excess of talent, care and investment inside the community that our little home-grown company can now embrace a wider web of artists and musicians that has allowed for it to be successful.
NP: How do you see the Ojai Youth Opera evolving as it goes forward? Do you have long range goals or upcoming plans for the OYO?
RC: “Nightingale and the Tower” will be aired for German Broadcast TV following our world premiere. We hope to tour it and take it on the road. We have our annual summer workshop happening this August for ages 7-18 at the Ojai Valley School. The focus will be on French repertoire. Our mission is to continue to create works with a socially conscious message for youth, to be sung by youth, so I’m certain new commissions will be in the works.
We are grateful for our close relationship with Opera Santa Barbara and the Youth Opera program created there. Kostis Protopapas is a wonderful Artistic Director and the City of Santa Barbara is lucky to have him. The Santa Barbara Symphony has discussed possible collaborations of sorts, as has New West Symphony Orchestra.
For now, we are focused on continuing to offer master classes throughout the year in Ojai as well as workshops and developing content that can shape young hearts and minds.